A Red Hot Yiddishe Mamma


Let’s talk about one of the original red hot mammas – Miss Sophie Tucker (1884-1966). If I had a spangly frock & feather fascinator, I’d sit down at the piano and do one of her numbers for you.

One of my mother’s favourite songs was My Yiddishe Momme and I realise now that it was Sophie singing it. Mother knew not a schmidish of Yiddish and if her Presbyterian soul had known of Miss Tucker’s saucy vaudeville background, she’d maybe have reconsidered. But that’s where I first heard Sophie Tucker.

Now I have a few 78rpm records of the lady. They’re perfect for mechanical sound – on shellac, it’s like you’re sitting at the nearest table to the bar and Sophie’s perched up there on the mahogany, belting it out.

Her signature number was ‘Some Of These Days’ and I’ve had the pleasure of hearing this 1911 cylinder recording on an original phonograph. What I have is the 1926 version on shellac with Ted Lewis. It’s considerably smoother than the original and I admit I prefer the rawness of the 1911 recording. After all, raw and punchy was what Sophie did best.

The song ‘Oh, You Have No Idea’ is wonderfully funny but naughty – how about that sexy growled ‘Oh’ at the end of each verse?

He’s got that whatsy whatsy what/What people can’t name/And say that whatsy, whatsy what/Would make the wildest woman tame./Hot as fire all the girls agree/Does he spark when he’s out with me/Oh you have no idea.

But it’s Yiddishe Momme that I play again and again.  Side one is in English and Sophie wrings every ounce of emotion from it.  On the other side, the band plays the song and Sophie speaks the words – in Yiddish.  Outstanding.

Listen to both sides here by clicking the arrows.


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Thinking Pongo Thoughts

pongo thoughts

This is Pongo. He’s known as An Ugly in pottery terms. I named him Pongo when I was a child and for much of my life, he was a doorstop. He went with us to a succession of houses and one of the signs of home for me was Pongo by the front door. When my parents died, I knew I had to have Pongo come live with me. He is honourably retired from his doorkeeping duties in deference to his age and sits on my windowsill, his droopy eyelids gazing benignly at me. The green of his bow is a little faded but that makes not a jot of difference to me. Pongo is home. He endures.
Photo © Rachel Cowan


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Buddy Bolden Blues

Dallas Blues on JOCO label

Back in the early days of the danceband, ad hoc bands with some weird and wonderful names were the norm.

The Original Memphis Five, for example, recorded under such names as Jazzbo’s Carolina Serenaders, Bailey’s Lucky Seven and The Cotton Pickers, despite none of their members having anything to do with the South. The bandleader Johnny Dodds was known for putting together a great group of musicians.

Here’s an example of a band called Blues in Dixieland, playing ‘Buddy Bolden Blues’, a song which began life as ‘Funky-Butt’ by the inspirational cornetist Buddy Bolden. This recording (1949?) is from the compilation Jazz Heritage – Volume IV and the label was a small outfit called JOCO, based in Northfield, Minnesota.

The number features Doc Evans on cornet; Al Jenkins on trombone; Art Lyons on clarinet; Mel Grant on piano; Micky Stienke on drums; and Biddy Bastian on bass. It’s possible that Jelly Roll Morton was also playing – information in the catalogues is often contradictory.

❦ To listen, click the audio player below. ❦

Photo © Rachel Cowan


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Cerebral Branch Lines


The inner life, the one racketing around inside the brain, has a lot in common with the railway. Maps, connections, cows blocking the line. Welcome to the 10.39 for your Final Destination, change at Crewe for Purgatory & All Stations West. Here though there are no deadlines, just neuron engines pulling uphill to the summit.

A map of Inner Life would be more Gorgon knot than the cool geometry of the Underground.  In distant corners, trees have grown up to obscure thinking and blur memory.  More Wild Wood than Kensington Gardens.
Stray imaginings, like bemused but excited children, can be lost in the folds of the cerebral cortex for days. Eventually they will surface on the shiny lines of the frontal lobes, a little frayed around the edges but glad to see daylight.  Sub-branch lines wiggle along unproductively – the lists you thought you made last week, the anguish about world events since resolved, your magnum opus that never got past page 32.  You need the culling power of a Dr Beeching for those.

A kind of benign anarchy rules, including how Time works. Essentially, it’s a law only unto itself.  Not unlike the days when each railway company kept its own time and there was no guarantee that your connection at 3.34 would not be departing from Platform 2 as you alighted on Platform 1 (across the bridge).

There are some rather snazzy branch lines (immaculate destination boards, station name picked out in scarlet geraniums) which rigorous housekeeping keeps up to the mark.  No random ponderings, no political opinions, and definitely no sentimental twaddle about the boy you kissed only once in 1970 are allowed here.  Reach destination – on time – cleanly and efficiently – that’s the ticket.

Elsewhere, time is an irrelevance.  No matter how many pressing thoughts march impatiently back and forth across the concourse, somewhere it’s always a spring morning in 1958 where the paintwork’s a little rusty and the wheels are only just turning.

Putting the brain into neutral – meditating – is really a lot like leaving Liverpool Street at rush hour and arriving,  mid-morning, on a hill station in Pallamcottah where freshly picked tea leaves are waiting to be drunk in a china teapot on a wide verandah. Aah, that’s better.


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Footie 1898 Style

Boys football team 1890s

Sports team photos are a mostly unchanging fixture. Somewhere in Lanarkshire in the 1890s then, a boys’ football team are assembled to face the camera. My grandfather, John (Jack) Somerville, is the boy seated on the front row at the far right, aged around 10. The kit they’re wearing seems to comprise a striped jumper, knickerbockers and big boots – imagine today’s teams wearing that. But how could they afford the kit? These are boys from poor families – Jack’s mother Betsy was managing alone with three young boys. Perhaps the school supplied it? There are only 10 boys, one short of a team – I wonder if somebody didn’t turn up on the day they were due to have their photo taken?

Family History

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I am an enormous fan of the corvid family of birds.  They are highly intelligent and extremely clever. They do use that intelligence to bully and steal on occasion, but then so does homo sapiens.

I once knew a family of magpies who successfully raised a couple of young ones a year. Their dramatic looks reminded me of a gentleman’s evening tailcoat with electric blue silk lining and their machine-gun staccato cries like the braying laugh of the gentleman’s wife.

Crows are universally confident – it takes a lot to frighten them. Crow-scaring devices provoke an initial flurry of alarm, but canny corvids quickly work out what is a real threat and which a ruse.

One day this crow was patient enough to pose for me. Initially perched in a tree overlooking a riverside path, he hopped obligingly closer and struck a pose in nobile profile, that keen eye always keeping me in sight. People refer to this type of crow as little undertakers because of their all-black feathered suits.  If that’s so, then they are a very superior type of undertaker, for their sleek glossy feathers are many wonderful tones of black.

Their ghoulish reputation as scavengers of the dead is probably exaggerated, but it does give us that marvellous Scots song, ‘The Twa Corbies’:

As I was walking all alane,

I heard twa corbies making a mane;

The tane unto the t’other say,

‘Where sall we gang and dine to-day?’
‘In behint yon auld fail dyke,

I wot there lies a new slain knight;

And naebody kens that he lies there,

But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.
‘His hound is to the hunting gane,

His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,

His lady’s ta’en another mate,

So we may mak our dinner sweet.
‘Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,

And I’ll pike out his bonny blue een;

Wi ae lock o his gowden hair,

We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.
‘Mony a one for him makes mane,

But nane sall ken where he is gane;

Oer his white banes, when they we bare,

The wind sall blaw for evermair.

Photo © Rachel Cowan


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Jean Sablon


Jean Sablon, a popular French singer and actor, was born in Nogent-sur-Marne in 1906. The son of a songwriter, he studied piano at the Lyceé Charlemagne and the Paris Conservatoire. He began his career in musical comedy but shot to fame when he was spotted by the legendary performer Mistinguett who chose him as her partner at the Casino de Paris.

In 1933 he moved to the USA where he became a hit on many radio shows. George Gershwin and Cole Porter wrote songs for him and he appeared in the Broadway musical ‘Streets of Paris’ with screen comics Abbott and Costello plus the singing star Carmen Miranda.

Jean Sablon, with his ‘crooner’ style, was often compared to such singers as Bing Crosby and Dean Martin. His biggest song success, for which he won the Grand Priz du Disque in 1937, was “Vous qui passez sans me voir,” written for him by Charles Trenet and Johnny Hess. He also helped to popularize swing music in France by teaming up on several occasions with Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt.

Jean Sablon’s records sold in their millions around the world and he became one of the most widely acclaimed male French singers second only in reputation to Maurice Chevalier. He is frequently referred to as the French equivalent of America’s Bing Crosby. He died in 1994 at Cannes and was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.

Label details:
Si Tu M’aimes
(Michel Emer & Ordner)
Sung by Jean Sablon
Garland Wilson at the Piano
Columbia DB 1709

❦ To listen to my 78rpm record of ‘Si Tu M’Aimes’, click the audio player below. ❦


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